History of Veterans Memorial Coliseum

Nov 30, 2016

New Orleans has the Superdome, Boston has Fenway Park, and Los Angeles has the Rose Bowl. Each of these stadiums is an icon within its respective city. In Phoenix, no stadium is more famous than the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, or simply "The Coliseum."

Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in 2009
Photo by: Michael Lundgren
A Phoenix Icon
The Coliseum is an important building in Phoenix's history for its historical significance and its unique architecture. The Arizona State Fair Commission recognized the need for an indoor, multi-purpose building as early as 1962. The intent was to use the enclosed stadium during the State Fair and for concerts and other events throughout the year.

Design and Construction
In 1964, the Commission approved a design from Phoenix architects Lescher and Mahoney. They were the most prominent firm in Arizona and built nearly every significant building in Phoenix today, during their heydey of 1910 to 1975.

Lescher and Mahoney's design for the Coliseum featured a very unique shaped roof. The actual geometric shape is a hyperbolic paraboloid, but to the layperson, it resembles a horse saddle or a Pringles potato chip. The roof is made up of more than 1,000 pre-cast concrete panels, which are supported by high tension steel cables. Each panel weighs over 3,000 pounds!

Construction began in 1964 and was completed in 1965. According to a Phoenix New Times article, construction of the 119,500 square foot building cost $7 million dollars. That would be about $53.7 million in 2016. The new address was 1826 West McDowell Road in Phoenix.

New Stadium, New Team
The original seating capacity was 12,381 people and was later expanded to 14,496. It was not nearly as large as Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium (completed 1958, capacity of 30,000), but it was indoors, and that opened it up to many types of events not suited to an open-air stadium.

The Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum is most famous as the home of the Phoenix Suns from 1968 to 1992. For 24 years, the "Madhouse on McDowell" was the home of Phoenix's NBA basketball team. It was here that the Suns' most memorable players like Alvan Adams, Walter Davis, Paul Westphal, Dick Van Arsdale, and Tom Chambers earned their reputations.

1968 Phoenix Suns Basketball Team with head coach Red Kerr.
Photo by: nbateamslist.com
The Suns play a pre-season game at the Coliseum in 1968
Photo by: NBA.com
But the Coliseum was famous for more than just great basketball - it was also famous for its notoriously leaky roof, which actually resulted in postponing a game against the Seattle Supersonics in January of 1986. The roof underwent a $1.7 million repair job 2009, which patched up the quick fixes that had been done in 1981 and 1991. New tensioning cables were installed and the sagging roof was raised 10 inches to its proper height.

Concerts and Events
The Coliseum has also been the stage for many concerts and performances, hosting everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Nirvana. Many Phoenix residents will recall seeing their first concert there, whether it was The Stones in 1965 or The Who in 1968. Many of rock's biggest acts have performed there - including two sold-out shows from Elvis Presley "The King of Rock and Roll" in 1970 and 1973.

Jimi Hendrix performs at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum - 9/4/1968
Photo by: PhotoFlashbacks.com
Besides music, the Coliseum was famously visited by Pope John Paul II in 1987 to meet with Native American representatives. As the only Pope to have ever visited Arizona, this was a very big deal. Mother Teresa paid a visit to the Coliseum in 1989. The Coliseum has also been used for political rallies by candidates Bush, Obama, and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Pope John Paul II meets with Native Americans at the Coliseum in September 1987
Photo by: Ron Medvescek/Arizona Daily Star
Mother Teresa with Arizona Governor Rose Mofford at the Coliseum in 1989
Photo by: Beatriz Limon/La Voz

The Coliseum Today
Things have been quieter at the Coliseum since the Suns moved out in 1992. The facility still serves its original purpose as an exposition building for the Arizona State Fair, and it recently celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2015. It continues to host minor-league sporting events and tournaments today. President George W. Bush hosted a rally at the Coliseum in 2004, and President Barack Obama hosted a rally there in 2008.

As you can see, the Coliseum has played an important part in the cultural history of Phoenix. From its unmistakable architecture to its role as a gathering place for sports, music, and entertainment events, the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum is truly an icon of Phoenix.

Coliseum Highlights:
November 3, 1965 - Opening Day - Ice Follies with Bob Hope
November 30, 1965 - The Rolling Stones concert

November 4, 1966 - The roof of the Coliseum is decorated with a six story tall candle, in honor of its first birthday

January 21, 1967 - The Monkees concert

February 17, 1968 - The Doors concert
May 24, 1968 - Jefferson Airplane concert
August 17, 1968 - The Who concert
August 22, 1968 - Simon & Garfunkel concert
September 4, 1968 - Jimi Hendrix concert
October 4, 1968 - First Phoenix Suns home game, exhibition against San Diego
December 25, 1968 - First Phoenix Suns televised game

September 9, 1970 - Elvis Presley plays a sold-out show to 13,000
April 22, 1973 - Elvis sold out concert 15,000 people
January 14, 1975 - NBA All Star Game held there, East defeated West in a score of 108-102.

Present Day
September 1987 - Pope John Paul II meets with Native American representatives at the Coliseum
February 2, 1989 - Mother Teresa spoke at the Coliseum
May 11, 1992 - Phoenix Suns play their last game at the Coliseum, Game 4 of the Semifinals
October 18, 1993 - Nirvana plays a sold-out concert
August 11, 2004 - President George W. Bush hosts a rally
January 30, 2008 - President Barack Obama hosts a rally


Mark Alexander said...

Interesting...I worked for Lescher & Mahoney in 1979 (after the firm had been bought out by an out-of-state company) and I don't remember ANYONE there mentioning that the firm designed the Coliseum, nor do I remember seeing any framed glamour shots of the building on the office walls. The firm that bought them out was trying to distance themselves from the original firm, so who knows?

North Phoenix Blog said...

Hi Mark,
Thanks for the comments about the Coliseum's architects. It says on Wikipedia that Lescher and Mahoney designed it, but I don't trust Wiki 100%. I pulled out my trusty 1983 copy of "A Guide to the Architecture of Metro Phoenix" by the Arizona A.I.A. and it too confirms L&M were the firm credited with the design.

Ken Akerman said...

The leaky roof that postponed a Suns-SuperSonics game on Jan. 5, 1986 did not occur in Phoenix, but at Seattle Center Coliseum in Seattle, as confirmed here: https://www.seattletimes.com/sports/this-week-in-sonics-history-4/


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